my yondan promotion essay

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose…

Yondan promotion essay by Keith R.A. DeCandido

November 2021

In 2004, I was 35 years old, living in Riverdale with my girlfriend Terri. My writing career was going quite well—that particular year, I had a USA Today best-selling Star Trek novel, the first novel in my original fantasy series Dragon Precinct, and two movie novelizations all published, as well as a couple of short stories and an essay or three. Most of my income derived from writing, though I also did some freelance editorial work. My cell phone was a Motorola flip-phone, and I spent a great deal of time at Palumbo Bakery with my laptop doing my writing. I hadn’t owned a car in twelve years.

            And on the 20th of September of that year, I walked into our dojo for the first time and took a white-belt class.

            Seventeen years later, I’m 52 years old, living in Woodlawn Heights with my wife Wrenn. My writing career is still going well, though the face of it has changed considerably. My per-year income from writing has actually gone down in the last seventeen years, and I’ve had to diversify, with writing for a pop-culture web site and teaching karate to kids supplementing the fiction writing and editing income. We now own two cars (I have no idea how that happened, really). I have a Samsung smartphone that has more computing power than the laptop that I used to take to Palumbo Bakery—which has since shut down, and these days I do most of my writing in my home office in any event.

            And on the 10th of November of this year, I will walk into our dojo again as a white belt, this time with the hope of starting my journey to yondan.

***

In many ways, I’m the same person who walked into the dojo seventeen years ago. My personality hasn’t really changed all that much. I’m still a generally happy and optimistic person. A dear friend once said something that I still consider words to live by: “pessimism is a misuse of imagination.” I’m still a writer of science fiction and fantasy. My circle of closest friends has been pretty much the same since the mid-1990s. I still love to travel and go to museums and zoos and botanical gardens. I still love baseball and comic books and TV shows and movies.

            And in many ways, I’m completely different. While the circle of friends is pretty much the same, it’s not completely, and there are people who I thought were friends for life in 2004 to whom I don’t speak anymore in 2021. In 2004, I would have identified myself primarily as a writer of Star Trek fiction (and it still makes up a huge chunk of my bibliography), but that is no longer the case. And instead of being Terri’s live-in boyfriend, I’m now Wrenn’s husband.

            But the biggest change, and the one that still freaks me out a little bit, is that, prior to 2004, I never considered myself physically strong. I was never athletic, didn’t really do sports, and considered exercise to be this weird thing that health nuts and athletes did, but certainly not for me.

            Obviously, that part has changed considerably. Now I’m the guy who lifts the heavy things, who carries all the groceries, who hauls the laundry up the stairs and the garbage and recycling down them, and so on. When my septuagenarian parents need something physical done, I’m the one they call on. (Well, sometimes. My 75-year-old father is stubborn and delusional about his own physical capabilities more often than not…)

***

The black-belt application that Shuseki Shihan Paul has us fill out before these promotions includes writing down the dates that you got each kyu promotion, and going through those dates was particularly eye-opening, especially with regards to the subject of this essay. Mainly because the arc of my deteriorating relationship with Terri tracks almost perfectly with my rise through the color-belt ranks.

            May 2005 was when I achieved my blue belt, and got to shift from the white-belt class to the color-belt class. That same month, Terri and I had a particularly vicious argument that almost resulted in our breakup. And, honestly, looking back, it should have resulted in our breakup. But I can be very stubborn, and I don’t like to fail. That same stubbornness that kept me coming back to the dojo those first few months at the end of 2004 when every pushup was purest agony and comprehension of the techniques was often elusive also made me determined to make things work with Terri.

            In August 2005, Terri and I took a trip to Scotland and Ireland. It started as a great trip, and ended that way, too, but in the middle we had another huge argument that nearly torpedoed the relationship, and might have done if we weren’t an ocean away from home at the time. The weekend after we returned to New York, I got my advanced blue belt.

            In a fit of madness, Terri and I decided in early 2008 to get married in the summer of that year—right around when I got my brown belt. We postponed the wedding, and finally broke up in the spring of 2009.

            The year 2009 turned out to be quite momentous. For starters, I turned forty. In April, Terri and I realized that this was never going to work, and we split up. In addition, 2008 ended with the editor I did most of my Star Trek fiction writing for being laid off (along with a third of the publisher’s staff—this was right after the market crash in the fall of 2008), and suddenly that particular well of work dried up, as his successor evinced no interest in hiring me. In May of that year, I met Wrenn, and we started dating the following month. In July, I was the subject of a comedy roast for charity at a science fiction convention in Maryland, which was a great (and hilarious) honor bestowed up on my by my colleagues, and later that month, the International Association of Media Tie-in Writers presented me with a Lifetime Achievement Award.

            And in October 2009, I was awarded my shodan.

            Being a black belt has been such a critical part of my self-image over the past twelve years that it’s easy now to forget what a big deal it was for Shuseki Shihan Paul to tie that belt on me in the fall of 2009. And it was the culmination of a year that was full of so much change in my life, though every micron of it was for the better.

            The Keith who walked into the dojo in September 2004 could not possibly have imagined the notion of being called Senpai Keith. Indeed, the concept of me as a black belt didn’t even occur to me as a possibility until my advanced green belt promotion (the first promotion that involved sparring). Certainly the Keith who was told by his doctor in the fall of 2004 that he should consider regular exercise would never have seen a black belt in his future…

***

One other big change between who I was in 2004 and who I am in 2021 is in how I describe myself. Back then, it would have been as a writer, editor, and musician. Now, I can add teacher to that list. I have taught classes to kids and adults in the dojo, as well as private lessons with individuals, plus since 2014 I’ve been teaching karate to kids as part of an afterschool programs in upper Manhattan.

            Being a writer is something I’ve always wanted to be, ever since I was six years old and put together a “book” on construction paper called Reflections in My Mirror. Being an editor is something I discovered in college, and was how I made my living for the first eight years after I graduated until my writing career took off. Being a musician is something that has also been part of my life since I was a small child, and while I’ve never made significant money at it, it’s also been a part of who I am for as long as I can remember.

            But being a teacher was new. That was never something I expected to be doing or even necessarily thought I’d be good at. And it’s become one of my favorite things—both about being a black belt and about being a person. I absolutely adore teaching, as it has brought me a fulfillment I never expected, and truly enjoy.

***

In so many ways, the Keith DeCandido who walked into the dojo in September 2004 is the same guy who’s going for his yondan this week. In so many other ways, I’m not remotely the same person in the least.

            But I can say this for sure: I liked who I was seventeen years ago, but I like the person I am now a great deal more, and my journey as a karateka is a big part of why that’s so.

            Osu!

I’m now officially Sensei Keith

The last three days of the black belt promotion were an insane blur. Friday night, me, Charles, and Gordy did kata and self-defense. It went very very well, full of great energy. Then we talked about our essays. (I’ll post mine later this week.)

I then went home and slept as much as I possibly could, because Saturday from 6pm to Sunday at 6am, Charles and I would be in the dojo basically reviewing everything. It was an entire karate life in twelve hours: kata (in every possible permutation), self-defense, combinations, fighting drills, and so on. Plus we did a ton of other exercises, like bag work and pushups and ab workouts and other stuff. And lots more besides — we were there twelve hours. (Don’t worry, we paused every two hours for a water and bathroom break.)

It ended with an hour of meditation, just sitting in the dark with only a candle for illumination.

After that, we got to go home and sleep — for two hours. *laughs* The final bit of the promotion is sparring. That started at 9.30. Gordy was back for that to earn his shodan while Charles and I were exhausted but rarin’ to go. We did twenty two-minute rounds of fighting against seven different black belts — including a couple who hadn’t been in the dojo for a while. Best of all, is Charles’s daughter, Tracey, who made it to second-degree black belt in our dojo before moving out of state. But she flew back for this — without telling her old man, so her showing up at the dojo was a total surprise. It was beautifully done.

Senpai Tracey was also, as it happens, my last fight, and she fought me very hard and well. My first fight was against Senpai Cliff, who was very much my mentor in the earliest days of my white belt saga. And, just like in my sandan promotion, Senpai Harley swept my leg and I fell on my butt.

And then Shuseki Shihan tied my belt on me. You can see it in the picture above: four stripes. I now officially have the title of “Sensei.” After years of teaching, I now have a title that actually means “teacher” in Japanese.

I may or may not have more to say on the subject as time goes by, but for now I’m sore and exhausted and exhilarated. I drove home from the dojo after the fighting playing music really loud and singing along with the window down, and then Wrenn took me to the Bronx Burger House for a desperately needed lunch. Then I took a huge nap.

Gonna take it easy tonight. Tomorrow, there’s a final workout with the entire dojo (everything up to now has been black belts only) followed by a huge celebration at a local Japanese restaurant.

It has been a joy and a privilege to go on this martial arts journey, and as far as I’m concerned, it’s only just begun. There’s lots more to go. And huge kudos to Sensei Charles and Senpai Gordy, who showed tremendous spirit and heart.

Osu!

first two days of promotion

sunrise over Bear Mountain

Charles and I have completed two of the five things we have to do for our promotion to yondan, a.k.a. fourth-degree black belt, a.k.a. sensei.

Wednesday night, the two of us and Gordy, who is an advanced brown belt going for his shodan, or first degree, went over basics: punches, kicks, blocks, stances, combinations. We all did very well, showed good spirit, good form, good knowledge of the material. The only hiccup Charles or I had was when we were doing sai combinations, and those were more practical issues: he was sweating so much he was having trouble gripping the sais, and the point of the sais kept almost getting caught in my uniform sleeve. But we fought through that.

The only other hiccup was when Shuseki asked the fateful question of Gordy, “What’s your favorite kick?” This question is a trap. *laughs* Because the next thing you do is one hundred of the type of kick you answered. Gordy fell into the trap, because he answered the question literally with back-spinning hook kick, a kick that involves a 360-degree turn. (Here’s an example of the kick.)

They say that some mistakes are opportunities, and this was certainly the case here. While Gordy realized his tactical error, the three of us then gamely did one hundred back-spinning hook kicks (alternating which leg does the kick every ten kicks, which ameliorated dizziness issues). It was amazing, stunning, and now I can tell the grandchildren I’ll never have that I did a hundred back-spinning hook kicks once.

That was a fantastic, if unexpected, way to end a strong first night of promotion.

Charles and I then went home to try to get some sleep, as we were to meet Shuseki at Elk Pen Parking Lot at 4am. Charles picked me up at 3am and we drove up there to meet Shuseki, who then drove us to Bear Mountain Inn. That’s the start of the Appalachian Trail, and we were to hike on the AT from Bear Mountain Inn to where Charles left his car. That’s 25 miles of actual hiking, which includes going over four mountains — Bear Mountain, West Mountain, Black Mountain, and Island Pond Mountain — plus up and down bunches of other hills, and going through the Lemon Squeezer (a rather tight rock formation).

Usually that hike is done by black-belt candidates in 13-15 hours or so. Charles and I did it in 11, partly because we were chasing daylight. Normally, these promotions are done in March or October, but thanks to pandemic-related stuffs, this one was put off to November, where the days are much shorter. So we set a brisk pace, took no real breaks (pauses for things like relieving ourselves and to switch clothing around, but that’s it). Shuseki left us at the top of the AT at 4.51am, and we walked back into the Elk Pen Parking Lot at 3.51pm.

It was a glorious experience, and while I’m achy today, I’m thrilled with how it went. It was absolutely beautiful, too. We got to the top of Bear Mountain just as the sun was starting to come up (see picture above), and the views were just stunning. I’ll put up more pictures down the line, but here’s one more I particularly loved, where we could see the Manhattan skyline from atop Black Mountain:

I can see my house from here!

Tonight is Day 3, where the three of us do kata and self-defense, and also discuss our essays. This is always my favorite part of a black-belt promotion, whether my own or someone else’s, as kata is what I love best in karate.

Osu!

promotion essays

One of the aspects of a black-belt promotion is to write an essay about your karate — Shuseki Shihan gives us a variety of sub-topics to choose from to explore.

I’ll post my yondan essay after the promotion is done next week, but meantime, here are links to my previous three:

My first- and second-degree promotion essays.

The Place to Find the Way is the Place to Find the People” — my third-degree promotion essay.

look over yondan

Tonight, it begins……

At 7pm tonight, I begin a journey that, if all goes well, will end on Sunday morning with a fourth stripe on my black belt, and I will be a yondan, with the title of “Sensei.”

To get there, I have five days of stuff. Tonight we do basics, “we” in this case meaning my fellow yondan candidate Charles, shodan candidate Gordy, and I. Tomorrow, Charles and I will go on an all-day hike over the Appalachian Trail through Bear Mountain, West Mountain, and Black Mountain. Friday night, all three of us go over kata and self-defense. Saturday night, Charles and I have an all-night session in the dojo with Shuseki Shihan Paul. Then Sunday morning is sparring for all three of us where bunches of black belts will take turns fighting us.

I feel ready for this, except for those occasional moments when I’m scared stiff. Still, I’m fairly certain I can do this. So is Shuseki, since he wouldn’t have asked me to do this if he didn’t think I was ready. Charles and I have done several practice hikes, so I’m feeling pretty good about that, and I’ve been fine with every stamina test I’ve given myself lately.

The time I’m not spending doing karate stuff the next five days will probably be spent sleeping, so I may not be on here or other social media that much.

Traditionally, in Japanese martial arts, you don’t wish somebody luck, you say, “Ganbatte,” which means “try your best.” So please, keep me in your thoughts with the hope that I will, indeed, try my best.

Osu!

my Sunday feeling

It’s been quite a week. My yondan promotion starts on Wednesday the 10th, and has something every day through to Sunday the 14th. This past Monday, the 1st, I flew home from Knoxville and went to class, Tuesday was my last fighting class before the promotion, Wednesday was teaching my afterschool kids, Thursday was the black belt class, Friday was Charles and my last practice hike through the Appalachian Trail, Saturday was our last run and another class.

The practice hike was for Thursday’s part of the promotion. Charles and I (both going for our fourth-degree) will be hiking a big chunk of the Appalachian Trail, over Bear Mountain, West Mountain, and Black Mountain, among other bits. We’ve done two practice runs, which is good, as I feel much more ready to tackle that now than I was a few weeks ago……

In the midst of all that, I had to keep writing and stuff. Plus it was Election Day on Tuesday (I held my nose and voted for Eric Adams for mayor because the notion of Mayor Curtis Sliwa is revolting) and my father’s 75th birthday on Thursday!

The latter was celebrated via a lovely lunch at Harvest on Hudson, a lovely Italian restaurant with a magnificent view of the Hudson river in Hastings-on-Hudson (right near that town’s Metro North stop) and a lovely garden in the back. Just a beautiful place to eat….

The birthday boy…

Today is a bit slower — watching a movie this morning, going to see The Eternals tonight, and in between is a private lesson at the dojo, plus writing and doing some desperately needed tidying up of the living room. And yes, that counts as slower……..

What are y’all up to this weekend?

what light through yondan window breaks?

It’s not quite completely official yet — still waiting for the formal invitation — but the process has started by which I will be going for promotion to yondan, or fourth-degree black belt. I will be going alongside Senpai Charles, with whom I also went for my nidan (second degree) in 2013 and my sandan (third degree) in 2017. We will be joined by Gordy, an advanced brown belt going for his shodan (first degree), and there may be some kids going for their junior shodan as well.

I am, at once, thrilled and scared to death, as the promotions are much more intense at this level. While there are some disciplines that just automatically give you another stripe on your black belt after being in rank for a certain amount of time, Shuseki Shihan Paul doesn’t do that (which, honestly, is as it should be — black belt stripes should be earned). For yondan and above there’s additional testing on top of the three promotion sessions.

This will all happen in mid-November, and between now and then I’ll be running in Van Cortlandt Park, going to every class I can possibly go to, and also attending fighting classes every Tuesday night. Assuming I make it through, both Charles and I will have a title change, as yondans are formally referred to in our discipline as “sensei.”

In Japanese martial arts tradition, you don’t wish someone luck. Instead, you say, “ganbatte,” which means “try your best.” Which is really all we can ever do. And I love the sentiment (so much so that I used “Ganbatte” as the title of a short story that later won an award….). So I won’t ask y’all to wish me good luck, but if you want to throw a “ganbatte” my way, I wouldn’t object…..

Tuesday night’s all right for fighting

Yesterday, for the first time in eighteen months, there was a fighting class in our dojo.

The recent apocalypse has played merry hell with karate, but we’ve managed to keep things going. We did virtual classes last spring, then switched to hybrid classes over the summer. The dojo policy has been that masks are worn during kids classes, while adult classes masks are only required for the unvaccinated — though the new NYC regulations mean that unvaccinated adults can’t train in the dojo anymore.

In any case, since most of our kids are 12 and under, and therefore are unvaccinated, we’re still not doing a kids fighting class (which was my responsibility back in the before-times). But last night, we brought back the adult fighting class, vaccinated folks only.

We took it easy on our first night back to it. Of the nine people sparring, four had never taken a fighting class before (they all joined last spring or later), and me and the other black belts present spent a lot of time working with them and showing them the ropes. We were also easing back into it ourselves, doing 1.5-minute rounds instead of our usual two-minute ones, avoiding any below-the-belt or above-the-neck contact, and generally keeping it lighter than normal.

I’m pleased to say it went great. I didn’t die, the new students all did well, and a fun time was had by all.

I used to hate fighting class, and it’s still not my favorite part of karate. But last night, before class I was feeling the same nameless dread I used to feel before fighting class when I was a color belt and would keep making feeble excuses not to come to class. That feeling passed by the time class started, though. Thank goodness.

It’s good to be back….

Go Ju Kata

This morning, I did an amazing thing.

Our karate discipline is pretty small — we only have five dojos, and they’re in five different countries: our honbu, or headquarters, here in New York, plus dojos in South Africa, Italy, Chile, and Japan. This morning at 8am Eastern Time, representatives from all five dojos gathered — some in their training space, some in their homes, some in large outdoor spaces — and together we all did fifty katas in two hours.

Katas are my absolute favorite part of karate. A kata is a form, a series of movements and techniques in sequence. The vast majority of katas are twenty steps, though some are ten or fifteen, and once you hit black belt they get even longer. (As a third-degree black belt, I have two katas that are just over fifty moves.) I love the way you lose yourself in the movements, in the techniques.

Today’s event was just spectacular. We did twenty-one different katas, each of them at least twice, some of them three times. Besides just the joy of doing katas, there was the added wonderfulness of being able to do them in concert with our friends around the world. The folks at the other dojos are also dear friends in addition to being fellow martial artists. The Italy dojo welcomed me and Wrenn wholeheartedly when we visited in 2018, and the students and teachers from all four of the other dojos have all made visits to us at honbu and it’s been wonderful every time.

One of the great frustrations of the past year has been the inability to interact in person with people. Doing so over video conferencing is a practical substitute, but it’s not always an emotionally satisfying one. Today, though, it was, as video conferencing was the only way to make this work. After all, we’re not just five different dojos in five different cities and different countries, we’re all in different time zones and in different continents! And through the magic of technology, we were able to be together even as we’re separated by so much distance, united in our love of and skill with karate. Watching us all move together in unison on my laptop screen was just fantastic.

We’re hoping to make this an annual thing. I, for one, can’t wait to do it next year….